By Maureen Kincaid Speller
The Trees — Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)
I put this novel on my shadow shortlist after reading the opening chapters on Amazon, because I was fascinated by the premise: the seemingly inexplicable overnight irruption of masses of full-grown trees into our familiar world. I said, when I explained my choices, that I was intrigued because it reminded me somewhat of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, in which the world is transformed, first by meteors, which cause mass blindness, and then by the apparently coordinated escape of the triffids, seizing the opportunities afforded by this new blindness. I was curious to see how much The Trees might be in conversation with Triffids more than half a century on.
Triffids remains one of my favourite post-catastrophe novels because, in part, it is a critical survey of the ways in which we might set about rebuilding the world in the wake of disaster; and here, I lay emphasis on that word ‘critical’. As Bill Masen travels back and forth across southern England, he visits a number of communities each of which is trying to survive according to a different social or political model, but each of which is, for one reason or another, found to be wanting, generally because it attempts to impose ideology on the situation rather than responding to conditions as they are. Masen and Josella Plaxton found their own little community, formed of friends and refugees, some blind, some sighted, and start a family of their own. Their hand is forced eventually by the arrival of representatives of a new ‘government’, with elaborate plans for, among other things, corralling the blind and feeding them mashed triffids. They abandon their community and flee to the Isle of Wight where a man called Beadley, someone they have had dealings with in the past, has established a much larger community (the point being that the Isle of Wight, once cleared of triffids, can more easily be defended).
The reason that Masen and others split with Beadley early in the novel was in part because he also had a grand plan, focused on rebuilding the nation, producing more children to repopulate the country, a scheme to which people objected for a variety of moral and social reasons. At the end of the novel, Bill and Josella join Beadley because his approach, while it might make them uneasy, is nonetheless preferable to the totalitarian regime that this new group wants to impose, depriving them of their autonomy. Wyndham’s response to disaster, in Triffids and in other novels, particularly The Kraken Wakes, relies on small groups of people banding together in adversity, pooling their skills, resources and imagination to construct the best lives they can for themselves in the circumstances. He lays a certain emphasis on equality, though there are always leaders (and progressive as Wyndham often is, they’re usually men), and on autonomy. The point is, of course, that Beadley has already enacted his future fantasy on the Isle of Wight and presumably found he has to make accommodation, while Bill and Josella, having gone their own way, have acquired knowledge and experience that is valuable to the wider community, but need to make their own accommodations for the sake of the next generation of their family. Everyone can be satisfied that they have made their point, and Bill and Josella can join Beadley’s community with a fairly clear conscience, knowing that it is unlikely, for example, that he is still advocating polygamy given the finite resources of the Isle of Wight. Also, having held out against the triffids for as long as they have done on the mainland, their knowledge will bring with it privilege within the community.
Having said that, Bill Masen is still that familiar figure of a certain brand of sf of the 1950s and 1960s, the competent man, if more personable and thoughtful than most, and Wyndham’s own presentation of the post-catastrophic world does rely on Masen’s competence and on the ready availability of everything he might need to get started, such as fuel and supplies. The world, and tinned food, conveniently disintegrate only in relation to the community’s increasing ability to support itself. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Wyndham also presents the reader with a brave and capable woman in Josella Plaxton, able to survive on her own, not there simply to reward Masen for being competent. Her relationship with Bill is a genuine partnership, and there is a whole other novel in which Josella made her way to the farmhouse where Bill eventually finds her, which is undoubtedly another reason I’ve maintained my enthusiasm for this novel over the years.
Wyndham created some very satisfying novels by bringing together several distinct narrative themes from earlier works. Richard Jeffries’ After London offered romantic images of a London which had been consumed by the wild, leaving survivors to live a quasi-medieval life – some late passages in Triffids, when Masen describes buildings collapsing in towns during his foraging expeditions, seem to echo this. William Morris, of course, yearned nostalgically for a return to idealised old country ways, while overlooking some of the brute realities of the medieval economy, not to mention the later effects of enclosure, and one sees certain elements of his desire for a return to medieval guilds and craft communities in some of the groups that spring up immediately after the catastrophe. Wyndham doesn’t dismiss either approach completely out of hand but it’s clear he is suspicious of such romanticism. While Jeffries and Morris revere nature, Wyndham seems to regard it as something to be dealt with as necessary, left alone when not needed. It might encroach but it can always be cut back.
H.G. Wells was a biologist by training but his The War of the Worlds, clearly another influence on Wyndham, was more concerned with the fate of the people caught up in disaster. Wells’ perception of the aftermath of catastrophe is much darker; the passages in the novel which describe the flight of the refugees remain very powerful and feel remarkably contemporary. Having said that, the Martian invasion is manifested in part through the appearance of strange plants, the red weed, symbolic of a different kind of alien intrusion. When the Martians begin to die, the explanation is purely scientific – they are killed off by Earth bacteria. Earth nature is obviously superior to Martian nature – British rivers never shall be slaves, and so on.
I have neither the time nor the space to trace out a detailed history of the British catastrophe novel, post-Wyndham, except to say that certain images and ideas resurface, time and again – the assumption that post-catastrophe, in Britain at least, we will revert to some sort of faux-medieval society; the need for the main characters to make a journey through the shattered landscape so the reader may also experience it; inevitably, some kind of rewilding of the countryside; a reuniting of separated couples.
Perhaps the most notable development in recent years is a shift from the mechanics of catastrophe – how it came about, what we do about it – to what seems to be an acceptance of the fact of it’s having happened accompanied by a greater emphasis on how we are coping with the middle-distance aftermath. This probably ought to be a welcome development, except that nostalgia for a lost golden era persists, while the future is invariably and inevitably a bleak dystopia. Closer examination generally reveals that this post-disaster setting is little more than a painted backdrop against which the characters work through a series of experiences which are only loosely tied to what has gone before. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but in 2017 it is difficult to invoke a mysterious plague without providing a scientific justification of some sort, in the same way that even if you want to talk about family relationships against a background of disaster and totalitarian government, you need to understand how that situation has arisen even if you don’t include lavish descriptions of it on the page, because the holes still show.
Which, in a slightly roundabout way, brings us to Ali Shaw’s The Trees. To say that it was directly in dialogue with Triffids would be to tell a lie, and yet the components are mostly present. Mysterious natural event? It is difficult to have an event more natural and mysterious than entire forests irrupting, full grown, out of the ground overnight, annihilating everything as they go. This also takes care of the rewilding motif in an instant. There is a lengthy journey across England, and across the Irish Sea, in search of a lost brother and a lost wife. There is less immediate interest in building a new world but such hints as we do see suggest that the most effective way forward will be for small autonomous groups, though these are going to rely heavily on people who already have some knowledge of how to deal with the natural world: one of Shaw’s implicit themes, and it may even be unintentional, is that as a society we have become detached from the natural world.
But none of what I’ve outlined above marks The Trees as a science fiction novel, even though it is a novel that uses science-fictional themes. It might as easily be a horror novel, given that what really does strike one as a reader, especially in the novel’s early chapters, are the moments when Shaw tries to deal with the aftermath.
As for Mrs Howell’s body, Adrien could see little of it, wrapped as it was in her bed covers. Just like the bed it had been skewered. Only a liver-spotted hand and one lock of hair showed between the folds of the sheets. (Bloomsbury paperback, 2016: 12)
The rising sun had found the many dead among the branches, their bodies flapping with crows and jackdaws. Adrien had already looked into the lifeless eyes of one poor woman who was slowly being licked away by housecats, the bells on their collars tinkling as they ate. (18)
Whenever Shaw wants to establish how awful the situation is, he returns invariably to images of people and objects pierced by or caught in the branches of the trees. Which is unfortunate as there is only so far such imagery can take one. Bizarre as this may sound, given the magnificence of the initial conceit – a fully-fledged forest suddenly engulfing the world, mixed in with a notion of the earth somehow expelling things put there by humans, one has a very strong sense that Shaw has no real idea what to do with the situation he has created, nor indeed how to account for it.
The nearest we come to understanding what has happened is when, close to the end (and look away now if you don’t like spoilers), Adrien comes to understand that the mysterious tree-figure he has encountered at various points during the novel is dying and is seeking a replacement, which will, if he agrees, be him. Why it needs to be Adrien is something I’ll come back to later; for now, I want to focus on the tree-king and his followers, the Whisperers, fairy figures made from twigs and leaves, which have shadowed Adrien and various others since the trees first arrived. Their existence, and that of the tree-king, suggests we are in a malleable, fantastical landscape, one where wolves can suddenly appear overnight; indeed, there are numerous faint hints that the landscape does literally move around, as things and people appear and disappear, distances no longer make sense in real terms, and seasons are manipulated by something. However, Shaw never quite commits himself to a Holdstockian notion of the irrupted forest as Ryhope Wood, and it’s left to the reader to make what sense she can from what is on offer. One thing we do gradually come to understand is that the Whisperers are searching for someone. Adrien encounters other people who have seen them, but like him, no one seems to know quite what they’re for; in at least two instances encounters with the Whisperers seem to have driven people mad.
Another thing we experience is a sense of nature as an unarticulated threat. Many of the reviews quoted on the paperback edition of The Trees recognise this without ever quite hitting the mark: ‘Does for trees what Hitchcock did for birds’ (Irish Times); ‘Tarantino meets Middle Earth’ (Financial Times); ‘an English ecological version of The Road (Guardian), ‘a gripping journey to the heart of wilderness’ (Yorkshire Post). Shaw himself acknowledges the contrariness of this view through his character, Hannah, gardener, ecologically-minded, working in a plant nursery when the novel opens but dissatisfied with the way the new owner is running it for profit rather than running it with the plants’ welfare in mind. Generally less disturbed by the arrival of the trees than most people, even Hannah has her limits, and it falls to Adrien, in a rare moment of emotional clarity, to point out the absurdity of what she is asking, when he first meets her and she pleads with him to help her save an ancient yew from the trees. I did wonder at this point whether The Trees was intended to be a satire, but I don’t think it is. Adrien’s comment – ‘Maybe there’s not enough tree in it, any more, for it to … for it to …’: he wants to say ‘be spared’, but doesn’t – might be a pointer towards an explanation of events but that thought is too quickly lost. Hannah, meanwhile, has a notion of people having lived in the forest for hundreds of years, only to become divorced from it and now afraid of it, which perhaps contains a grain of truth, wrapped in a shocking lack of knowledge about the history of deforestation of Britain. If the fear of the forest comes from anywhere, it is the fact, surely, of people having not lived in it for several thousand years but having cut it down so they could get on with grazing animals and raising crops. The forest is the place from which mystery and danger emanate. It is the place beyond the law, the place where people hide, the place where people can get lost, where rituals are performed. Most people have been afraid of the forest, for one reason or another, and others have exploited that.
One of the pull quotes on the paperback edition of The Trees takes a slightly different tack: ‘a stunning and vivid examination of the relationship between humans and the environment’ (Scotsman). This assessment is not, I think, entirely inaccurate, insofar as we’re given characters as representatives of different attitudes: Hannah, the committed lower-case green; Adrien the man who has very little idea what nature is but suspects he doesn’t like it; Seb, Hannah’s son, who likes to be outside but does not want a full-on, tree-hugging relationship with it, though he proves to be perfectly adaptable as the situation requires. And then there is Hiroko, the girl they meet along the way, who has somehow (and rather conveniently for the novel) been thoroughly trained in survival skills and who consequently has an entirely unsentimental approach towards hunting in order to survive.
Despite all this, I’m not entirely sure even now that surviving in the aftermath is actually at the heart of The Trees. Shaw’s two earlier novels, The Girl With Glass Feet and The Man Who Rained were tightly written, beautifully observed contemporary fantasies, aligned somewhat with novels such as Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place and very much focused on the central relationships. I think the relationships in The Trees are supposed to be the important thing, played out against the background of mysterious trees. Yet everything Shaw achieved in the earlier novels seems to be entirely absent in this one. Shaw understands the dynamics of relationships, the inequalities of power and need, and the ways in which some people rise to the top of the heap in certain situations, yet somehow he fails to articulate them on the page. That is to say, certain things are repeated, over and over, but it’s difficult to get beyond a superficial sense of people’s experiences.
We understand that Adrien is adrift in the world. A teacher, and not necessarily a very successful one, he is married to the omnicompetent Michelle, who offered him a sabbatical to figure out what he really wanted to do. This turns out to be sitting in front of the tv watching old westerns, because Adrien literally has no other idea what he wants to do or be. Before the trees arrived, Adrien and Michelle had quarrelled, and he suspects that she is having an affair with a colleague who is more successful than he will ever be. As Hannah puts it, late in the novel, when she and Michelle discuss Adrien, ‘[h]e does have a habit of making himself inferior to everything’ (371), and yet, as it turns out, it is that inferiority, that sense of being subordinate that makes Adrien right for the job he will be asked to take on.
Similarly, we understand that Hannah is a misfit. She has invested a good deal in the idea that her brother, Zach, is leading a better life as a woodsman than she could ever imagine, partly because of her own early experiences in an alternative community from which she was expelled because she became pregnant by the commune’s leader, and thus drew attention from him. The discovery of Zach’s murder and her subsequent cold-blooded murder of Zach’s killer forces Hannah to question her own existence. Her journey to find Zach has proved to be a folly, and Adrien’s journey to find Michelle will prove a folly insofar as he makes it only to apologise and formally release her from their relationship. However, as Adrien supported her, so she intends to support him. This is romanticism rather than practicality at work, and yet, in its fuzzy way, it seems right.
And that, I think, is what we are supposed to take from the novel; that somehow we all muddle along and survive. Adrien may regard himself as lost right until the last moment but as readers we are supposed to see him growing throughout the novel, and perhaps, after a fashion, we do. He grows physically stronger, and emotionally stronger, but in the end, his strength lies in his comparative weakness, and that is why the tree-king chooses him as his successor. ‘Strong men only drove the world to ruin’ (462). Adrien’s apotheosis lies in subordinating himself to the needs of others, but on a grand scale.
Hannah finally achieves peace through a meaningful relationship, a marriage of the woods and the water if we want to head in that direction, when she meets Eoin the widowed fisherman, and his daughter, Nora. Disappointingly conventional, perhaps, but they are undoubtedly the couple best fitted to live off the land and the sea. Seb and Hiroko also form a relationship, unsurprisingly, and will eventually decide to try to make their way to Japan, to find Hiroko’s family, a literal expression of their inclination to look to the future, while Michelle will take on the leadership of the community she became part of in Ireland while she and Adrien were separated, the role to which she is best suited. The emphasis is on healing and wholeness, and everyone, even Adrien, finding a place for themselves in the world. The last word Adrien hears as he is absorbed into the tree-entity is ‘Grow’, the one thing he has never quite managed to do.
Which is all fantastically life-affirming in its way but cannot get us past the fact that this novel is frankly a mess. Charitably, one could argue that it is a realisation on the page of Adrien’s confused and chaotic experiences, but that really cannot stand. Much of what I read in The Trees felt like journeyman writing in need of a good, hard edit; too often the prose is flaccid, while individual sentences are awkward, or overburdened with said-bookisms. One has the strongest sense that Shaw is struggling with describing what his characters see, as if he can’t himself imagine the events. This would make sense if he employed tight viewpoints for his characters but too often it feels as though the reader is given the chance for a quick rummage around in their heads, to see what’s on the surface today. Often, the answer is not that much, which may be true to life, but it makes for unsatisfactory fiction. And much the same could be said about the plotting. So many possibilities are thrown out but left unexplored; they litter the novel’s floor like leaves in the forest. It is almost as though Shaw is very deliberately working against his earlier novels, struggling to break out of self-imposed constraints.
And yet, I’ve already written three thousand words about this novel, and could go on. Because, for all the fact that it fails on so many levels, and certainly isn’t anything I’d call science fiction, it is nonetheless heroically frustrating in the way it pours ideas out onto the page and offers up characters who aren’t that competent but who might be. Rather as the Whisperers seem to exist in the corner of the eye, I keep catching glimpses of a novel that might have been but that was lost because the enormity of the task overwhelmed its writer, to the extent that in places we have a summary rather than a story. The Whisperers are a novel in themselves, and I genuinely wanted to know more about the function of the tree-entity. Adrien as tree-entity is able to provide food for Hannah once she leaves Michelle’s community by manipulating the seasons, so are we to infer that there is some message about the world having been out of kilter while the previous entity was dying. There’s a half-glimpsed dissection of the relationship between humans and nature that I really wanted to see; had that happened, I might well be calling this science fiction. I could go on but it all becomes too depressing.
At the same time, this prompts me to turn back to the clinical neatness of the resolutions in Wyndham’s, Morris’s and Jeffries’ post-catastrophe texts and ask myself whether these aren’t in their way just as bad as Shaw’s messy romanticism. The assumption is always that order, however unrealistic it might be, will be restored, or that what comes after will be, once we’re through the inevitable dystopian interlude, as strong and as good as what we had before. Actual experience suggests that this is at best a partial truth, so do I read these novels as inspirational texts or downright untruths? Currently, I have no answer, but this much The Trees has achieved, in that it obliges me to question that which I previously accepted.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and reviewer. She is Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons, and Assistant Editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. She also reviews for Interzone and Vector. She is a former Arthur C. Clarke Award judge, and a former James Tiptree Jr. Award judge. She also blogs at Paper Knife.